How Can Ubisoft Fix Assassin’s Creed? / 30th of November 2014
Last week I finished up our review of Ubisoft’s latest historical stab-stravaganza Assassin’s Creed Unity, which although I enjoyed, still had some fairly fundamental problems. And as I mentioned, it’s these problems that prevent the series from being something truly special. A game which would no longer be restricted to merely pleasing its already substantial fan base, instead capable of becoming a must have purchase for anyone interested in the stealth/action genre. With that in mind, here’s a few ideas on what the series needs to change that would surely benefit everyone:
1. Don’t go Back to the Future
For those who may be counting, thanks to the simultaneous release of Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Unity was either the sixth or seventh major release for the series. And by this point the trappings of the Animus machine, and all its vague scientific nonsense, is wearing petty thin. In fact by this point it seems that even Ubisoft may feel the same way, but they just can’t bring themselves to drop the concept.
Admittedly there were those who were fond of the whole ‘Desmond storyline’, but that came to a close at the end of Assassin’s Creed 3. Since then the strings to the recent future have become decidedly more tenuous, with Assassin’s Creed 4 having you play as a nameless Abstergo employee, and Unity drops everything but the principle as you’re now merely someone sitting at home playing some sort of virtual reality videogame. Well that’s the right direction from Ubisoft, but it’s still baby steps.
Stopping my swashbuckling pirate antics and returning me to some soulless office space every now and again isn’t something I need my videogames to offer me. And as for the seemingly random jumps to pre-war, and then Nazi occupied Paris, they’re completely needless. Both serve only pull you out of the game and leave you wondering how long these sections will take before you can return to what you were doing.
In truth nobody cares about the machine that allows people to relive memories of their long dead ancestors, and as a tool for justifying the setting and various protagonists, it’s just not necessary. You’re a videogame series Assassin’s Creed, not some limp procedural TV show constantly concerned with whether or not it’ll be back for another season. The secret never ending war between Assassin’s and Templars, being fought all across the globe is sufficient enough to justify jumping back and forth throughout history with each new game.
2. A Bit of Housekeeping
This next point may at first appear minor, but really it’s something that’s not given enough importance, especially within the Assassin’s Creed series. Should the next game do what’s needed and ditch the aforementioned near future setting, and all the baggage that comes with it, then Ubisoft will be finally free to re-design the in-game HUD. Something that’s long, long overdue. In Unity the beautiful architecture of eighteenth century Paris is constantly blighted by the multitude of semi-transparent icons and widgets. Not only do they clutter up the screen they’re also completely out of context with the world in which you’re supposed to be playing. And giving players the option to remove them via the game’s menus doesn’t solve the problem.
The health bar, mini-map and various prompts that pop up are all there because for most players they’re a necessity. What Ubisoft needs to do is design each HUD and menu system so that its aesthetics fall in line with wherever the game’s particular setting takes us. It may not sound like a big deal but integrating such a design feature - and making the HUD icons smaller while they’re at it - would be a simple thing to fix, and one that would go a long way.
3. Beg, Borrow and Even Steal
Shortly before the launch of Unity, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was released and it is one of the finest testaments to how borrowing liberally, or downright copying ideas and mechanics from other franchises is nothing to be sneered at. SoM was happy to adopt the popular free-running mechanics of Assassin’s Creed and the critically acclaimed combat system from the Batman Arkham series. The end result for Monolith was a genuinely surprising game, one that wasn’t afraid to adopt systems that already worked rather than try and solve a problem that had already been answered. Ubisoft need to take note.
This year Unity attempted to re-invent the combat system, making things more difficult for players by removing the counter mechanic seen in previous games, but in practice it only managed to make things worse. Unity’s combat is now awkward and lacks the grace of its predecessors, or robust feel of something like SoM or Batman: Arkham City.
Like combat, stealth was something that was re-worked for Unity, with the addition of a dedicated crouch button and the ability to stick to cover. But yet again Ubisoft have tried to do things their own way and made a mess of things. Arno constantly sticks to the wrong piece of cover, and anyone who’s attempted to make their way through co-op mission without being spotted will be all too aware of the flimsy nature of the game’s cover mechanics. It’s all the more surprising when you consider Ubisoft already has the blueprint to one of the most robust cover mechanics available in videogames today. The Splinter Cell series may have diminished somewhat in recent years but the slick, cover to cover it movement it created for Splinter Cell: Conviction could so easily have been put to use within Unity. In fact other various Ubisoft studios have found it so effective that it’s a mechanic that’s been applied not only to Blacklist (the most recent instalment in the Splinter Cell series), but also to the likes of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and even Watch Dogs, the series critics accuse of being a modern day Assassins Creed.
If problems such as these, the future setting and the ugly HUD were gotten rid of, and Ubisoft were willing to make liberal use of solid mechanics from other franchises, then surely next year’s Assassin’s Creed would be more than just another game with a pretty new setting. The series could become the pinnacle of third-person-action games, and who knows even breathe life into the ever fading stealth genre. It already has the aesthetic appeal that no one can match, as well as - when it works - the most enjoyable way to traverse any game world. Competitors I’ve mentioned like Arkham City or SoM can’t currently beat Assassin’s Creed on those fronts, and their core concepts will probably mean they never will. Should Assassin’s Creed get its act together in these other departments it could well be a cut above the rest, until then it’s just unfulfilled potential.